Third Wave Feminists: The Ongoing Movement for Women’s Rights

Janice Okoomian. Women’s Rights: People and Perspectives. Editor: Crista DeLuzio. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2010.

The problem is that, while on a personal level feminism is everywhere, like fluoride, on a political level the movement is more like nitrogen: ubiquitous and inert.

—Baumgardner and Richards 2000, 18

Introduction: The “Wave” Metaphor

“Third Wave feminism” is a term “generally used to describe three interconnected concepts: generational age, ideological position, and historical moment” (Henry 2004, 34). Third Wavers are usually younger feminists, born in the early 1960s or later, who have a distinct set of political or ideological beliefs arising from the social and historical conditions of their era. This chapter traces the rise of the Third Wave as an historical movement. The metaphor of feminist waves helps us to identify commonalities and differences between large groups of feminists who differ by age, historical period, and ideology. Nevertheless, it is important as we proceed to keep in mind the drawbacks of the waves framework. For one thing, this framework may imply that feminist disagreements are trivial mother/daughter squabbles rather than genuine political debates. The waves model also tends to exaggerate ideological and historical differences, when in fact there is considerable continuity in Second and Third Wave feminisms. It is more accurate to think of Third Wave feminism as both a departure from and a continuation of Second Wave feminism. This view yields a more complex and historically rich picture of U.S. feminism over the past 40 years.

Background: Postfeminism and Backlash

By the late 1980s, feminism was dead—or so the media had repeatedly claimed. Writer Erica Jong discovered, for instance, that between 1969 and 1998, Time magazine announced the demise of feminism 119 times. The 1980s were declared to be a postfeminist era. Feminists expected to meet resistance from conservatives, but by the end of the 1980s, even moderates and liberals seemed to have lost enthusiasm for feminism. A crushing defeat of the ERA (Equal Rights Amendment) in 1982 was followed in 1984 by the defeat of Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman to run for Vice President on a major party ticket. Second Wave feminists were bitterly disappointed by these losses. A deep cultural anxiety about feminism and its attacks on male privilege had taken hold.

Two main strands of thinking fueled the belief that feminism was obsolete. According to some, feminism was no longer necessary because it had accomplished its main goals. More women had entered the workforce, especially in nontraditional fields. Sexual harassment had been declared a form of job discrimination. Some states had passed victim protection laws for rape victims. Women had legal access to reproductive choices, including birth control and abortion. The federal Title IX statute prohibited sex discrimination in education. The problem of domestic violence had been brought to the attention of the public.

Others believed that feminism had failed because it was too radical. In the media, feminism was blamed for the high divorce rate. Many accused feminists of creating hordes of depressed, lonely, single women who had opted for careers instead of families. Feminists were said to have duped married women into delaying childbirth, thereby creating an infertility epidemic. One Newsweek writer complained, “The truth is, a woman can’t live the true feminist life unless she denies her child-bearing biology. She has to live on the pill, or have her tubes tied at an early age … [to] keep up with guys with an uninterrupted career” (Ebeling 1990, 9). Others complained that the new rape, sexual harassment, and sexual abuse laws feminists had fought for unfairly imposed a rigid standard of sexual correctness, a specific form of political correctness.

Both strands of reasoning can be traced to what journalist Susan Faludi termed “backlash” in her 1991 book of the same name. Faludi provided a wealth of evidence that the radical right and the Reagan/Bush administrations, along with the cooperation of the media, had undone much of what Second Wave feminism had accomplished. For instance, Faludi writes, “Just when women were starting to mobilize against battering and sexual assaults, the federal government stalled funding for battered-women’s programs, defeated bills to fund shelters, and shut down its Office of Domestic Violence—only two years after opening it in 1979” (Faludi 1991, xix).

The harshest forms of backlash in the 1980s were already well known to feminists. Among the most notorious antifeminists were televangelists like Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and Jim Bakker. Robertson claimed, in a 1992 fund raising letter, that “[t]he feminist agenda is not about equal rights for women. It is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians” (Boston 1996, 164). Antiabortion protesters also became increasingly vocal during the 1980s, some resorting to violence. Groups like Operation Rescue staged blockades to prevent women from entering abortion clinics. Between 1977 and 1989, 77 family planning clinics were bombed or burned by antiabortion activists, and numerous attacks and death threats were made on providers.

The most radically antifeminist groups never gained the support of the majority of Americans. Indeed, despite media reports of the feminist movement’s failure, Faludi reported that in national surveys taken in the 1980s, “75 to 95 percent of women credit the feminist campaign with improving their lives, and a similar proportion say that the women’s movement should keep pushing for change” (Faludi 1991, xv). What was more shocking to readers of Backlash was the revelation that despite the popular belief that things were getting better for women, this was far from the reality. Although there were indeed more women in the workforce, 80 percent still worked in low-paying, traditionally female sectors, including secretarial, sales clerking, and the lowest levels of the service industry. The glass ceiling—an invisible barrier of sex discrimination—prevented women from reaching the highest positions in business, government, and the professions. In 1989, 75 percent of high schools were still in violation of Title IX regulations.

Then, in the presumedly post-feminist climate of the early 1990s, a new source of criticism arose against feminism, in the form of several well-publicized, sweeping criticisms by self-described feminists. Criticism from within its ranks was not new to feminism—Second Wave feminists had been grappling with claims of racism, classism, homophobia, and other ideological differences for years. However, three new writers in the 1990s received national attention for their criticism of feminism: Camille Paglia, Katie Roiphe, and Naomi Wolf. These writers critiqued feminists for focusing too much on victimization, and Wolf coined the term “power feminism” as an antidote to “victim feminism.” Power feminists refused to dwell on victimization and, claimed these writers, were likely to be more successful, empowered, and effective as a result. Some feminists appreciated this distinction, but others believed power feminism to be nothing more than “the voice of the father in his latest disguise” (Heywood and Drake 1997, “We Learn America,” 50).

“I’m Not a Feminist, But …”

This period, full of contradictory claims and interpretations of feminism’s value, was the era when Generation X (usually referring to those born between 1961 and 1981) came of age. Young women had never known a time in which they did not have legal access to contraception and abortion; protection from forced sterilization (especially for women of color and poor women); greater access to education and jobs than there had been for their mothers; shelters and legal support for victims of rape and domestic violence; and Women’s Studies courses in many colleges.

But as events in politics and law during the late 1980s and 1990s showed, the work of feminism was not yet finished. In 1991, law professor Anita Hill testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that she had been sexually harassed by her former boss, Supreme Court justice nominee Clarence Thomas. The Thomas confirmation hearings were televised and widely reported by the media, but the Senate Judiciary Committee refused to believe Hill’s testimony. The Thomas hearings served as a wake-up call for feminists both white and black. Reproductive rights were also being compromised during this period. The Supreme Court upheld restrictions on abortion in the Webster v. Reproductive Health Services (1989), Rust v. Sullivan (1991), and Planned Parenthood v. Casey(1992) cases. These rulings paved the way for restrictions such as mandatory waiting periods for women seeking abortions, parental notification and consent laws for minors seeking abortions, and gag rules preventing doctors from discussing abortion as a valid option for patients.

In light of these new assaults on women’s rights and status, Second Wave feminists began to criticize what they perceived to be a lack of feminist consciousness in the young women of Generation X. Some older feminists were dismayed at the numbers of young women who not only did not self-identify as feminists, but took the hard-won gains of Second Wave feminism  for granted. There was a “girl power” movement in the early 1990s, but many Second Wavers saw this movement as backlash-driven and politically apathetic.

In fact, however, many younger women did identify as feminists and were very much aware of the gains made by Second Wavers. In their Third Wave tract Manifesta, Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards describe the cultural mood in which they were children as an exhilarating one. Theirs was the generation that “took its first breath of air in a new atmosphere, one where women’s expectations and freedoms were soaringly, thrillingly different” (Baumgardner and Richards 2000, 12). Some were raised in feminist families, while others learned about principles of gender equality at school. Girls could play on Little League teams. Boys as well as girls were taught about girls’ rights. Many Gen Xers did not encounter sexism until they were older, so they did not have occasion to understand the dynamics of patriarchy as soon in life as many Second Wavers had.

Baumgardner and Richards argued that the comparative invisibility of young feminists should not be taken as a sign that they did not exist. In fact, they claimed, “Third Wave women have been seen as nonfeminist when they are actually living feminist lives” (48). If feminist principles were embedded in younger women’s lives and guided their choices, it was because this generation grew up in a culture more infused with feminist principles than any other. However, a 1998 Time/CNN poll found that over 50 percent of women in the 18-34-year-old range did not call themselves feminists, despite believing in central goals of feminism, such as reproductive rights and wage equity. The reason for this contradiction, as Baumgardner and Richards noted, is that, while younger women had feminist values, they often lacked a feminist consciousness.

Third Wave Consciousness

Feminist consciousness, as Baumgardner and Richards imply, includes an awareness of the history of women’s rights and feminist movements, an understanding of how one’s own life experience could be viewed using feminist interpretive lenses, and a willingness to call oneself a feminist. In young women, all three components were not always present. They were often, for instance, unaware of the history of feminism. Audre Lorde famously said in 1984 that, without a significant understanding of what has gone before, women expend their energies re-creating feminism again and again, instead of being able to devote themselves to advancing its goals. Second Wavers did not want to expend energy re-inventing feminism; but the younger generation, lacking historical knowledge, was not ready to proceed with the Second Wavers’ agenda.

Young women were also less likely than their elders to have thought about feminism in relation to their own lives. Second Wavers had participated in consciousness-raising sessions, where they could explore what feminism was and what it meant to them. In conversations with others, women discussed the ways in which sexism permeated U.S. culture in the mass media, the political realm, and the work world; they made connections between the conditions of their personal lives and a larger social system of patriarchy. Younger women arrived on the scene after this important work had been done by older women, but not in time to participate in it. As Baumgardner and Richards pointed out, this meant that younger women did not have an awareness of how sexism and patriarchy affected their own their lives.

Because they lacked the first two components of feminist consciousness, many young women did not adopt the third component—a willingness to self-identify as feminist. However, even those young women who did identify as feminists sometimes felt at odds with the Second Wave movement. Feminist organizations’ agendas grew out of Second Wavers’ articulation of feminist values. Raised under different historical conditions, younger feminists sometimes had different priorities. Yet they found themselves comparatively voiceless in feminist organizations in which Second Wavers were the established leaders. Third Wavers criticized NOW, Ms., and other prominent feminist organizations for ignoring, even excluding, younger feminists.

One significant difference in the perspective of Third Wave feminism was its multiracial focus. Third Wavers were more likely to identify as biracial, to have biracial friends, and to date across racial lines than were Second Wavers. Multiracial consciousness thus was more prevalent in Generation X than in any previous generation. This heightened multiracial consciousness among Third Wavers did not, however, mean that Third Wave feminism had become fully racially inclusive. Indeed, some young women of color remained alienated by the ongoing whiteness of feminism. For instance, Veronica Chambers critiqued fellow Third Waver Naomi Wolf for failing to discuss “ how the tyranny of the beauty myth had scarred so many women of color—not only black women, but Asian, Latina and American Indian women as well” (Chambers 2001, 26). Likewise, Rebecca Hurdis argued that Baumgardner and Richards’ Manifesta failed to include a sustained discussion of women of color feminism. Thus, while multiracial consciousness was more intrinsic to the Third Wave, there continued to be a privileged focus on the needs and concerns of white women.

The popularity of postructuralist theories of identity had also caused a shift in the way Third Wavers approached feminism. Poststructuralists like Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Lacan had argued that identities are not fixed, not biological, not essential, but rather are fluid, socially constructed, and performative. These theories had been appropriated by 1970s feminist theorists such as Julia Kristeva and Luce Irigaray to deconstruct notions not only of women’s inferiority, but also of gender identity itself. Queer theorists like Judith Butler used poststructuralism to argue that sexualities are numerous and fluctuating, that identities like “homosexual,” “heterosexual” and “bisexual” are social constructions created and maintained by the “performance” of individual subjects and regulated by the institutions of social power (Butler 1990). Third Wave college students were exposed to these concepts in their Women’s Studies classes and tended to integrate them into their own feminist beliefs. Thus, Third Wavers were more likely to take a stance of playful disruption toward gender and sexual categories, performing gender or not as they wished, often with a sense of irony, as in the appropriation of such performative props as lipstick and high heels. This seemed frivolous and trivializing to some Second Wavers, who thought that Third Wavers viewed personal identity and experience “as a focus in its own right and not as a route to theoretical insights and structural change” (Fixmer and Wood 2005, 248). Yet Third Wavers also thought seriously about the implications of poststructuralist theory for feminism. “We must recognize that there can be no single representative subject of feminism, while, at the same time, we must continue to speak in a collective voice that articulates political demands on behalf of a group called ‘women,’“ writes Deborah L. Siegel. “This” she continues, “is the paradox that faces women of my generation: It is not easy for ‘third wave’ feminists to say ‘we,’ yet we must” (Siegel 1997, 61-62).

Men’s consciousness and relation to feminism likewise underwent a shift in the Third Wave. Men had been involved in both the First and Second Waves of U.S. feminism. But Gen X men, like Gen X women, had grown up with feminism in the form of slogans of gender equality that had permeated the popular culture. Some Generation X college-educated men came out of college having taken at least one Women’s Studies course, so their knowledge of feminist principles was generally more in-depth than that of other men in their cohort. Gender Studies classes offered the ability to explore theories of gender and identity, the ways in which patriarchy privileged men, and the history of women’s lives and activism. The influence of Women’s Studies in the lives of men extended into their later lives and professional activities, with some highly visible results. For instance, Gen Xer Joss Whedon, the creator of the 1990s cult television show Buffy the Vampire Slayer, is a self-described feminist himself, who was raised by a feminist mother. The inspiration for Buffy came from Whedon’s observation that horror movies typically include a scene in which a lone girl is attacked in a dark alleyway; Whedon wondered what it would be like if that girl could fight back. Buffy became a huge success, popular with the Gen-X audience (female and male alike), in part because of its depiction of a heroine who could kick ass.

An increase in feminist consciousness among young women also arose out of popular culture phenomena like the Riot Grrls. Riot Grrls came into being during the summer of 1991, when two all-girl bands, Bratmobile and Bikini Kill, transplanted themselves from Olympia, Washington to Washington, D.C. There, they gained quick prominence in the Indie (independently produced) pop scene, started a fanzine (an amateur-produced magazine for fans of a particular group or genre), and circulated slogans such as “Revolution Girl Style Now.” A movement was ignited. Riot Grrl chapters sprang up around the country, holding consciousness-raising meetings and workshops. Central to the Riot Grrl agenda was claiming the stage for women in the maledominated world of Indie pop. Through their music, which reclaimed punk as a protest form, and their song lyrics and zines, which addressed a range of feminist topics, the Riot Grrl movement generated an upsurge of feminist consciousness among fans.

All of these social developments created a significant shift in the way younger women experienced and thought about gender identity and feminism. To some Second Wavers, it looked as though Third Wavers had blunted the edge of feminist criticism and action. However, Third Wavers writing about their perspectives described experiencing identity as increasingly complex. As Rebecca Walker put it, “For us the lines between Us and Them are often blurred, and as a result we find ourselves seeking to create identities that accommodate ambiguity and our multiple positionalities: including more than excluding, exploring more than defining, searching more than arriving” (Walker 1995, xxxiii).

Third Wave Activism

Activism in the Third Wave manifests itself differently than did Second Wave activism. The most notable difference is that Third Wavers tend to engage in the popular culture rather than rejecting it, as Second Wavers did, taking “cultural production and sexual politics as key sites of struggle, seeking to use desire and pleasure as well as anger to fuel struggles for justice” (Heywood and Drake 1997, Third Wave Agenda, 4). Another difference in Third Wave activism is that it appears leaderless. Yet this apparent leaderlessness is really a sign of the heterogeneity of the Third Wave and its tendency to be expressed in a diversity of local contexts or quietly integrated within the framework of numerous other activities. In a culture that recognizes social and political movements only if they have a hierarchical leadership structure, with a few individuals at the top serving as spokespersons, Third Wavers have resisted the urge to narrow the scope of the movement, instead valuing the very diffuseness that makes it hard for the media to identify a superleader.

Some highly visible organizations do exist to advance the goals of the Third Wave, nevertheless. For instance, The Feminist Majority Foundation has a widespread college-campus program. Affiliated groups on college campuses receive support and resources from the Foundation as they organize to work on campus feminist issues such as Title IX compliance, access to contraceptives, student voter registration, and establishing sweatshop-free policies. Perhaps the most celebrated birth of a Third Wave organization took place in 1992, when Rebecca Walker declared in the pages of Ms. that “I am not a post-feminist feminist; I am the Third Wave” (Walker 1992, 41). Ms. was flooded with letters from young women who wanted to be part of the Third Wave. Shortly thereafter, Walker and Shannon Liss founded The Third Wave Direct Action Corporation to promote young women’s feminist activism. By 1997, the Corporation had morphed into the Third Wave Foundation, whose purpose is to make grants to organizations that benefit women, girls, and transgendered people. One such grantee organization is the California-based “Khmer Girls in Action,” which worked in 2008 to defeat a bill that would have required parental notification for California minors seeking abortions. These organizations are but two example of activism in the Third Wave; through these and other vehicles, Third Wavers address the issues most important to them.

Reproductive Rights

The 1990s and 2000s saw the chipping away of reproductive rights, fueled by the Webster and Casey Supreme Court decisions. Thus, reproductive rights remain high on the Third Wave feminist agenda. College campuses are active sites of organized activism, sometimes sponsored by student activities boards of the colleges. Some campus feminist groups receive organizational help from national groups such as NARAL (National Abortion & Reproductive Rights Action League) Pro-Choice America. Students Organizing Students (SOS) was founded in the wake of the Webster decision, and within one year had established 150 chapters at high schools and colleges. Groups like New York’s Women’s Action Coalition (WAC), launched in response to the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill hearings, joined forces to resist the tactics of Operation Rescue. Medical Students for Choice, founded in 1993, coordinates efforts by medical students to make sure that abortion procedure training remains a part of medical school education, fighting the attempts of anti-choice groups to have that training eliminated from medical school curricula. Abortion is still a legal right, and Roe v. Wade has not yet been overturned, but assaults on women’s reproductive freedom continue, so Third Wavers maintain ongoing vigilance and activism in this area.

Body Image and Eating Disorders

Second Wavers identified disordered eating and body image as feminist issues, and interpreted the power relations underlying them. Third Wavers continue the struggle over how big the female body is permitted to be, how much space it can take up, and what it should look like. Some feminists question whether struggling with an eating disorder is a form of political activism, since it does not involve attempts to change laws, institutional politics, or social policy, and it is largely a personal struggle rather than a collective one. On the other hand, Third Waver Abra Fortune Chernik, a one-time anorexic and bulimic, asserts, “Gaining weight and getting my head out of the toilet bowl was the most political act I have ever committed” (Chernik 2001, 81). Third Wave activism about body image occurs through media like autobiography, visual art, theater, song lyrics, and blogs. Feminist artists and social critics use these forms to create alternative representations of the female body and to promote dialogue and consciousness-raising about body image.


The Third Wave is insistently sex-positive. Whereas Second Wavers focused on preventing sexual victimization of women, Third Wavers want to explore the domain of sexual activity free of all judgments. They critique Second Wavers for losing sight of women’s pleasure as a goal in their battles against date rape and pornography. Third Wavers, by contrast, are likely to celebrate or produce female-centered pornography, rather than supporting the prohibition of male-centered pornography. As Debbie Stoller writes, “from fucking around to cursing like sailors to watching porn to shaking our booties at the local strip joint, we are sexual adventuresses who, unlike our foremothers, don’t dare to assume that we know what ‘female sexuality’ is all about” (Stoller 1999, 84). Third Wavers have critiqued government-funded abstinence-only sex education programs in the public schools. Feminists charge that these programs rely upon the sexist virgin/whore dichotomy, give out misinformation about contraception, and prohibit the teaching of safe-sex practices. Jessica Valenti puts it like this: “The government is spending $178 million a year to tell young women they’re big whores if they give it up, and various other untruths” (Valenti 2007, 21). Third Wavers also work for gay marriage and adoption rights, as well as rights for transgendered people.


Third Wavers came of age in an economic climate rather different from that of Second Wavers, particularly white middle-class Second Wavers. Middle-class Third Wavers grew up assuming that they would have careers, and there are, indeed, more opportunities for women in many professions and trades. However, there is still a gender wage gap: women earned 76 percent of what men earned in 1998. While college-educated women’s earnings rose between 1980 and 2000, by about 22 percent, there was little or no increase in earnings for women without a college education during the same period. Third Waver Michelle Sidler writes that, whereas Second Wave activism “took the shape of hard work in positions that pushed on a glass ceiling, a third wave activism might take the form of denying or resisting corporate America by starting worker-friendly businesses or by helping employees unite to buy out their companies, thus returning the wealth and capital of the company to those who fostered it” (Sidler 1997, 36). Third Wavers also mobilize to support working-class women’s needs for workplace protections. In 2003, for instance, thanks to grassroots feminist activists, the New York City Council passed a bill (the first in the country) protecting domestic workers against exploitation.

The Mommy Wars—women’s struggles to balance work and family—continue to be an area of feminist activism as well. In recent years, a flurry of books about motherhood has been published, including Judith Warner’s Perfect Madness (2005), Susan J. Douglas and Meredith W. Michaels’ The Mommy Myth (2004), Susan Maushart’s The Mask of Motherhood (1999), and the anthologies The Mommy Wars (Steiner 2006) and The Bitch in the House (Hanauer 2002). These books cover ground familiar to Second Wavers—busting the Supermom stereotype and describing their struggles to maintain a healthy balance between working and mothering. But if the issues are not new, it is nevertheless significant that younger women are beginning to speak up in greater numbers and louder voices. It is likely that, as more Third Wavers confront motherhood/work issues in their own lives, these issues will become a more significant focus of Third Wave activism.

Transnational Feminism

Raised in an era of globalization, Third Wavers are more likely to be conversant with global feminist issues than Second Wavers may have been. Many gender studies courses now incorporate a global perspective into the curriculum. Feminists from the United States and other western industrialized nations confront the thorny matter of how to engage with women in cultures whose practices are perceived to be misogynist. Respect for cultural self-determination and the desire not to impose western cultural values conflict with feminist desires to raise the consciousnesses of Third World women about such practices as honor killings and female genital mutilation. Transnational feminist activists direct their efforts in areas such as sweatshop labor, education and literacy for women and girls, women’s health, human trafficking, genocide, and the environment. The Feminist Majority Foundation, for instance, has a “Global Women’s and Reproductive Rights” campaign, focused on engaging young women in global activism. Participating student activists educate fellow students on their home campuses about women’s health and reproductive rights, violence against women, and the connections between environmentalism and feminism, all in a transnational context.


Much of Third Wave action is to be found in journalism, the Internet, and the arts. In print media, young women started zines—small, self-published, grassroots magazines—over which they maintained total editorial control. Both Bitch and BUST, for instance, began as zines, each of them eventually going national. BUST, launched in 1993, describes itself as “fierce, funny, and proud to be female,” offering “an uncensored view on the female experience” (BUST Web site, Bitch: Feminist Response to Pop Culture, launched in 1996, is “about critically examining the images of things like femininity, feminism, class, race, and sexuality that are thrown at us by the media” (Bitch: Feminist Response to Pop Culture Web site, Other, larger magazines with national circulation were pitched for Third Wavers who found Ms. unexciting and for girls, as an alternative to fashion magazines. Sassy, (published 1988-1994) was an alternative teen magazine. Its young editors steered clear of content about dieting, boys, and celebrities, instead writing hip and candid articles about sexuality and the real lives of girls. Hues, an acronym for “Hear Us Emerging Sister” (published 1992-1997), situated multicultural and multiracial feminism at its center, and used the subtitle “A Woman’s Guide to Power and Attitude,” not explicitly declaring itself feminist, in order to reach those who had been turned off to feminism by the forces of backlash. Despite not using the F word, however, the Hues editorial staff thought of its agenda as resolutely feminist.

The impact of the Internet on the Third Wave has been profound. Third Wavers, often more computer literate than their Second Wave sisters, have launched a number of online resources for feminists. These online sites use cyberspace to create feminist communities, in which feminists can discuss political beliefs, share personal experiences, create agendas for political action, and share information about reproductive technologies or other matters of mutual concern. The Internet is as much a site of consciousness-raising for the Third Wave as meeting with speculums in someone’s living room was in the Second Wave. BUST magazine, for instance, hosts a Web site with a variety of chat rooms on topics like media, fads, love and dating, body image, work, relationship, global politics, and teens. Women enter these chat rooms with a range of perspectives and feminist consciousness. For newcomers to feminism, online chatting may be a way to learn about and explore feminist ideas. The range of topics itself indicates an expansion of feminist belief—that one might reconcile a taste in S/M or B/D sex with one’s feminist principles, for instance. Moreover, the Internet has engendered new forms of technology-assisted activism. For instance, HollaBack organizations in cities around the world host Web sites on which they post cell-phone photographs of street harassers sent in by victims.

The Internet can be a democratizing force for those with Internet access. Anyone can launch a Web site, create a blog, or post a video on YouTube. Yet, feminists disagree about whether what is touted as “cyberfeminism” is truly feminist, or whether it merely repackages western consumerism in the guise of girl power. Some critics have argued that cyberfeminism offers a fantasy of global sisterhood rather than a reality. As Stacy Gillis writes, “That fewer than 20 percent of global households have electricity—let alone Internet access—raises the question of whose politics this fantasy obscures” (Gillis 2004, 191).

Third Wavers have expressed their politics and activism not only through journalism and the Internet, but also through conventional artistic media as well. One notable example is Eve Ensler’s play, The Vagina Monologues, which debuted in 1996. The Vagina Monologues was a national hit, won an Obie award, and spawned an international activist movement to end violence against women. Every year, the play is produced on college campuses around the country on Valentine’s Day. Proceeds from ticket sales benefit domestic abuse advocacy organizations. Lilith Fair, an all-woman rock festival organized by musician Sarah McLachlan, traveled and performed from 1997-1999. The tour earned over $16.4 million in its first year, and gave $20,000 (on average) to battered women’s shelters or social service agencies in each locale in which it performed. Examples like Lilith Fair andThe Vagina Monologues demonstrate that feminist art projects can garner significant national attention and acclaim, and that they can draw enough audience support to create a sizeable purse for feminist-based activism.


It is clear that much of what Second Wave feminism tried to accomplish has yet to be realized, due to resistance from antifeminist forces in the United States. But the vitality and scope of Third Wave feminism is proof of the ongoing commitment of the younger generation of women to fight for the rights of women. If the movement is quieter, that may not mean that it is less effective. The authors of Manifesta write, “Whether casting spells or Bitching, it’s a sign of the times that feminists today are more likely to be individuals quietly (or not so quietly) living self-determined lives than radicals on the ramparts. They are experts in their fields—media, politics, advertising, business—rather than expert feminists (though they are often that, too)” (Baumgardner and Richards 2000, 36). It may be that the integration of feminist values into the domestic, social, and professional fabric of U.S. society will be the most important contribution of the Third Wave towards advancing the cause of equality for women. Collective activism—in the form of a visible social movement—may not be in evidence until a fourth wave comes into being.